Dalai Lama – Mormon missionaries


Self-knowledge, identity and the Dalai Lama

The “current” Dalai Lama was born Tenzin Gyatso. Six decades ago he was enthusiastically busy being just an ordinary boy when one day some monks arrived to tell him he is not who he thinks he is, but rather the umpteenth incarnation of someone else. Imagine that.


[My conversations, real or otherwise, with the Mormon missionaries go back to my first year in Taiwan when two young, well-dressed, clean-cut Americans visited my apartment every Thursday evening for a few weeks. Their visit was by invitation – I saw them one night while I was smoking a cigarette on my porch, and since there weren’t that many Westerners in the area to talk to, I seized the opportunity for a little theological chit-chat. Our discussions took the form of question and answer: I asked questions, they tried to answer, I replied with fresh questions to their answers, and when they no longer wanted to answer or when they longer had an answer, I came up with possible answers on their behalf. After a few weeks, the two decided to part ways with me.

On the particular Wednesday of this piece I was heading back to Fengshan by train when two Caucasian men entered my field of vision: young, wearing black pants, white short-sleeved shirts with name badges on the one breast, cleanly shaven, short hair. I began to wonder what I would say, were they to target me for conversation. The trip lasted only about ten minutes; the discussion would therefore have been short, and to the point.]

Conversation with Mormon missionaries on the train

(That did not take place on Wednesday, 2 June 2004)


I nod.

“Are you a teacher?”


“How long have you been here?”

“Couple of years.”

“Have you heard of the Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ?”

“There’s no point in me having this conversation with you.”


“Because you don’t know who you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you know your names, and you know to which religious organisation you belong. But these are mostly things that you’ve been told about yourself during the first two decades of your lives. You haven’t really made any personal choices that would indicate to me that you truly know who you are.”

“We’ve chosen to follow Jesus Christ.”

“How could you have chosen something if you’ve never had any choices? Where did you grow up? Utah? Salt Lake City? If you were an Arab who grew up in a Muslim environment, with all the environmental data that would have given you an identity in that context, and you then chose the Church of Latter Day Saints above Islam … then you would have made a choice. So far you’re nothing but a human body carrying around a lot of data about yourself. These things – your physical appearance, your name, your language, where you come from, your nationality, and the fact that you are missionaries of a particular church – are all identifying marks that tell you and anyone else how you fit into your environment.

“You, sitting there, cannot tell me anything that you haven’t been told. Have you ever had an experience that could possibly undermine your beliefs? How can you know the truth about yourself or anything you believe in if you’ve never questioned the validity of the facts that you’ve been fed? What are your criteria for telling truth from a lie?

“I cannot have an intelligent conversation – about religion no less! – with someone who is nothing more than an emulator of other people in order to know how he should function as a human being.”

“How do you know what we think, or what we’ve experienced? I experience God every day …”

“Yes, you have experiences, and I’m sure you’ve been told how to interpret them. And the words you use to give expression to these experiences … are words that you did not invent, am I right?

“My station’s coming up. Listen, I cannot, in the final instance, judge the validity of your experiences. I do not claim to possess the powers of mind or spirit which would certainly be required to either confirm or refute the source of your experiences.

“If I made certain assumptions about you that are incorrect, please accept that I did so to make a point that might be applicable to your life, or it might not be. If my assumptions cannot in entirety be dismissed, then please consider it for a minute or so. Either way, have yourselves a good day.”